The Boy Poet

The Lodge was named after Thomas Chatterton (1752 - 1770)
 
On the first of January, 1753, Thomas Chatterton was baptised in St. Mary Redcliffe, thus entering for the first time that superb edifice which, during the most impressionable years of his life, was to have a profound effect upon him.

 

His father, Master of Pile Street Free School, which stood almost facing the church, died just three months before the boy was born. Times were hard for poor Mrs. Chatterton, left as a widow at the age of 21 and soon with two young sons to care for. Thomas’ formal education began at the school where his father had once taught but the schoolmaster complained that the boy lacked the capacity for learning and he was quickly returned to his mother. The storey goes that during his seventh year, he came across an old music book which had belonged t his father and was so fascinated by the illuminated capitals in it that he soon mastered the alphabet and from that moment his appetite for reading was insatiable.

 

At the age of 8 he was offered a place at Colston’s Hospital, where he was certainly granted in fullest measure the opportunities for learning of which he had longed. Morning lessons began at 7 and lasted until noon; the afternoon session ran from 1 until 5, after which the boys had more work to do before they retired to bed at 8 o’clock. Only on Saturdays and Saint’s days were they given any leisure and then just for a few hours in the afternoon. They were never allowed out on Sundays, the whole day being devoted to “spiritual exercises”. There were no school holidays. Young Chatterton yearned for the freedom he had once enjoyed: those blissful days when, as a consequence of his uncle’s appointment as sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe, he had been free to roam wherever he liked within the walls. His imagination had been captured by in particular by the effigy of a knight in armour, which can still be seen in the north transept and that of William Canynges the younger on his tomb in the south transept. Merely to gaze upon these figures transported the lad into the Bristol of the past and he spent many an hour trying to picture life as it had been in the Redcliffe of Canynges’ day and marvelling at those whose vision and skill had resulted in the building of that great church.

 

By the age of 10 Chatterton was writing poetry, much of it on religious themes but by the time he left Colston’s School and was apprenticed to Mr. John Lambert, a scrivener of Small Street, his thinking was dominated more and more by 15th century Redcliffe. The office hours were long but he had little work to do, so a great deal of his employer’s time was spent in drawing street-maps of Canynge’s Redcliffe as Chatterton imagined it to have been and in writing poems about the history of its church from its earliest days.

 

In one of these poems he relates how King Edward the First spent Christmas in Bristol in 1285 and having brought with him a number of gallant Knights, arranged a three day’s jousting tournament for them on the Redcliffe meadows. One of the Knights, Simon de Burton, made solemn vow to God that if he succeeded in bringing down his formidable opponent, as a mark of his gratitude, he would build upon that very spot a great church dedicated to “Our Ladie”. That, according to Chatterton, is how the first church came to be built on the site of St. Mary Redcliffe. It is a good storey, though of doubtful authenticity.

As the poems proceeded, the principal character in them was William Canynges. Now the real William Canynges was a wealthy merchant and ship owner, who repaired St. Mary Redcliffe, made it bigger and more magnificent after lightening struck the steeple in 1446, when two-thirds of it came crashing down on to the nave, doing a tremendous amount of damage. But in the boy’s imagination Canynges was transformed into a courageous and pious Knight, at whose command a monk called Thomas Rowley travelled the length and breadth of the country, collecting detailed drawings of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in the land and hiring the most expert masons in preparation for the building of St. Mary Redcliffe.

 

The more Chatterton wrote about Canynges and Rowley, the more real did the Redcliffe of his own creation become to him and although the events he described were almost entirely the product of his own imagination; the background material was remarkably accurate. His knowledge of Bristol’s history and of the language of 15the century England certainly surpassed  that of most educated Bristolians of his time. His acquaintance with language of the period came as a result of painstaking study of 15th century documents which were stored in wooden chests in the muniment room of St. Mary Redcliffe. Most of the manuscripts made uninteresting reading, merely recording the amounts which had been spent in repairing and refurbishing the church at various times but the attraction for Chatterton was that many of them were written in the script and language of William Canynge’s time. Many and hour he spent, copying and recopying the script and mastering the language and the phraseology, until he was able to present his poems in such a way that they appeared to have been written by the monk, Thomas Rowley, himself, especially when transcribed on pieces of ancient parchment taken from the muniment room.

 

Some of Bristol’s wealthy, who liked to think of themselves as men of culture but who were quite unable to differentiate between a genuine 15th century manuscript and one which Chatterton had produced, now began to show sufficient interest in his poems to pay modest sums for them but his attempts to interest a publisher led to nothing.

 

The only hope seemed to lie in leaving Bristol (which had come to regard as a land of Philistines) and establishing himself in the literary circles of London, so. With £5 in his pocket, money raised by his few friends in Bristol, he set out, full of optimism. He wrote at a prodigious rate, often working through the night. Some of his satirical pieces, in which he castigated prominent Bristolians and leading politicians, did appear in print but without bringing any financial reward to their writer. The poor boy’s vision of fame and fortune awaiting him in London soon faded. In the tiny garret which he had rented in Holborn he lived in extreme poverty, going for days without food, yet too proud to accept a meal from the owner of the property in which he lived. Every precaution was taken to see that his loved ones at home knew nothing of his tragic predicament. In spite of his failings, he always had the deepest affection for his mother and repeatedly assured her that one day she would share the wealth which would certainly come to him when people recognised his poetic genius. But he became more and more dispirited as things grew steadily worse and on 21st August, 1770, he took his life – just three months before his 18th birthday.

In recent years, literary critics have tended to belittle the work of Chatterton and to dismiss a good deal of the “Marvellous Boy” story, which had a special appeal to the 19th century mind and was certainly embellished by it – the tragic tales of the youthful genius, born in poverty and before his time, who protested against the materialism of his century with the invention of an idealised medieval world and a poetry to match it and who was driven by the literary establishment of his day to starvation and suicide.

 

There is no doubt that the 19th century did embellish the story of Chatterton’s life but the fact that the legend of the “Marvellous Boy” evolved at all is, in itself, an indication of his greatness, since legend only attaches itself to people of exceptional merit.

 

The poetic achievements of Chatterton should never be belittled. They were remarkable if only for the volume of material produced during such a short life and some whose opinions should not be lightly dismissed have testified to the excellence and significance of that material. John Keats described Chatterton as “the most English of poets, except Shakespeare”. Many scholars have seen in the Rowley poems the advent of something new on the horizon of English poetry – the beginnings of the Romantic School – something which inspired the greatest poets of the 19th century, Coleridge, Shelly, Keats and Wordsworth..

 

Too often Chatterton has been written off as an unprincipled forger; it is nearer the truth to see him as an unparalleled artist. Although he did deceive many by presenting his Rowley poems in such a way that they seemed to be a product of the 15th century, there is good reason to believe that deception was not his basic intention. With great artistic skill he was trying to bring others to know that the world of Rowley and Canynges which was so real and so precious to him and he did it in three ways: by building up in his own mind a clearly-defined picture of 15th century Redcliffe: by writing in the name of the fictitious monk; and by using what he believed to be the most appropriate language and the most appropriate materials for the relating of this great drama. In all this we see the mind of a boy at work, albeit an outstandingly gifted boy.

 

St. Mary Redcliffe is proud of its association with Thomas Chatterton and the Chatterton Lodge has every reason to bear with pride the name of one who was probably Bristol’s first great poet. In 1966 the hideously-proportioned memorial to Chatterton which stood in the south churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe was removed and replaced by a more worthy memorial – a simple tablet bearing the words “Thomas Chatterton, of this parish, 1752-1770, poet” and situated in the most appropriate place, close by the tomb of William Canynges, the one who, by building St. Mary Redcliffe, was a constant source of inspiration to the boy-poet and of all men the one most revered by him.

 

Nothing could be more fitting for members of the Chatterton Lodge, in celebrating the 50th Anniversary, than to have in mind words written by Thomas Chatterton himself. I have chosen a very brief quotation written to his school friend, Thomas Carey and in which he is speaking of his beloved St. Mary Redcliffe. He writes:

 

“Trace the tortuous windings of one of the pillars,

Follow it upward

Till as a noble arch it takes flight forth,

Lifting into eternity”.

 

At its best, the work of the ecclesiastical mason is nothing less than sacramental. It is not only a visible reminder of the perfection, the majesty, the glory of the Supreme Architect; not only a visible assurance of his presence and his all-embracing compassion. No, more than that. As this young boy recognised, the finest artistry in stone has the power to lift up the human spirit; to raise us for a while above all the fustrations and disappointments of earthly life and to bring us for a brief but glorious moment into eternity, into the very presence of God.

 

May our work as speculative masons, may the work of the Chatterton Lodge, have the same profound effect, bringing us and those around us to raise our eyes beyond things temporal to behold the glory of the eternal.
 

The address given by

W.Bro. The Rev. Cyril Edwards

to commemorate the 50th Anniversary